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Remember John and Thelma Orr

By Susan Kujawa
Posted: 08/28/2023

John and Thelma Orr were founding members of the Pasadena Village. A few years ago they moved to the Bay Area to be closer to their son and his family. John passed away on February 25, 2023, at age 89. Thelma passed away on July 12, 2023.

John had a distinguished academic career at USC, where he served as the Dean of Education and Professor Emeritus of Religion, having received his doctorate from the Yale Divinity School. During his career at USC he developed a graduate program in social ethics and published several books, including The Radical Suburb (1970). 

In the 1990s, following the civic unrest instigated by the beating of Rodney King by the LA Police Department, John was instrumental in creating the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, now a core program at USC. He retired from USC in 1998 and eventually he and Thelma settled in Pasadena.

I only knew the barest minimum about John’s professional career. I knew him as a tall, gangly man with a beautiful baritone voice and a twinkle in his eye. It was clear that he viewed retirement as a chance to LIVE. He was an artist at heart. He had created paintings and sculptures in a “pop art” tradition for decades and also took up photography when he retired. Thelma recalled how he would walk along the beach and bring back flotsam for his art projects. Thelma was the calm, steadfast, common-sense presence in John’s life, with her own career in physical therapy as head of a department at Rancho Los Amigos Hospital.

John and Thelma joined the Village during its period of formation. I was the Executive Director charged with turning our ideas into reality. Enter John Orr. He thought we should see a museum exhibit at the now-closed Museum of California Art and proposed leading a tour. I put it on our sparsely filled calendar, people signed up, and John led us through the art exhibit with gusto and expertise. More museum visits followed, more activities for the calendar. Looking back, I realize that John and Thelma played a pretty important role in the creation of the vibrant, active, event-filled Pasadena Village that we know today.

When we moved into our current office space at the Flintridge Center, John did not like the bare walls of the “social room.” I showed him some posters I was planning to hang. He was not impressed. “We should turn this room into an art gallery, showcasing the art of Village members.” He recruited a sidekick, Patrick Dunavan, and the two of them spent hours preparing the first exhibit, which featured the photography work of John and fellow Village member Bill Gass. This space still functions today as a Village Art Gallery, curated by a rotating team of artists.

John and Thelma had careers in which they engaged in meaningful, demanding, often ground-breaking work. When they retired, instead of looking back, they took another approach. They kept living, creating, growing, and loving. They blazed the path that we follow to this day.

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